WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Linux in the Arts

November 18th, 2013

Last month, the French national police announced plans to convert all 72,000 of their desktop computers to Linux and become one of the largest open-source installs in the world. This tremendous vote of confidence is a clear signal that Linux is ready for general-purpose enterprise computing and can be considered a serious option for organizations of various sizes and structures. Only within the last few years have free, open-source projects become – dare I say – marketable to a typical user who needs to get things done without worrying about the technical details of their system.

Taken from the point of view of a small, budget-conscious arts organization, there are several advantages over a typical commercial operating system:

  • Cost: Free! The Linux Foundation is itself a non-profit, and the principal architects are committed to keeping Linux free forever.
  • Customizability: From certain perspectives, Linux may seem like a fragmented ecosystem, with hundreds of unique varieties (known as ‘distributions’) available at any one time. Many of these distributions are purpose-built for specific industries or fields, but several are designed around an easy and intuitive user experience. Ubuntu and its offspring (Mint,Elementary, etc.) are dead-simple to install and configure, easy to expand, and easy to understand, given experience with any other operating system. It’s also possible to build your own distribution, making it quick and painless to set up new computers with the right mix of software for the organization.
  • Hardware compatibility: Contrary to popular belief, Linux has the best hardware support of any modern operating system. It runs reasonably well on older systems that have long since been unsupported by their original operating systems, meaning cash-strapped organizations can take advantage of nearly-free hardware but still get all of the security benefits of a modern operating system.

Despite the benefits, an outright switch into Linux probably isn’t the smoothest transition for an office already familiar with another system. Luckily, it can be taken in stages, as much of the open-source software made for Linux is also available for Windows and Mac. The French police’s announcement comes at the end of years of gradually adopting such software, to the point where their users were comfortable enough that changing the underlying system wasn’t disruptive. Additionally, with the growing availability of viable web-based software like Google Docs, organizations are increasingly free from the constraints of a specific operating system’s desktop software.

I am somewhat surprised at how difficult it is to find examples of arts organizations who have adopted Linux or other open-source platforms. From what I can tell, the open-source arts management ecosystem is still fairly small, but there are a few companies pioneering the sector’s own movement (notably Fractured Atlas, who have released the source code of their Artful.ly ticketing and event management system).

Now that larger enterprises are throwing their weight behind Linux, I suspect we will soon see a number of arts organizations follow suit.

Philanthropy and the Very Rich

November 14th, 2013

This past summer, Peter Buffett’s piece in the New York Times about the so-called charitable-industrial complex was an unusual example of one of the class of super-rich taking his peers to task for their self-important, often ineffective approach to using a fraction of their wealth to do good. Too often their “feel-good” panaceas do not get at the root cause of society’s problems-problems often caused by the very inequity that their wealth has created in the first place.

Peter is not the only member of the remarkable Buffett family to take a different approach to philanthropy. His aunt Doris, now in her mid-eighties, gave away over a hundred million dollars, much of it directly to individuals who had had hard luck in life thereby eliminating the well-fed philanthropic middle men (and women) who siphon off so much of the charitable dollar. She does not approve of the philanthropic superstructure of intermediaries but likes giving money directly.  She also created education programs in prisons. Her story is told in the book Giving it All Away.

Recently, Doris created, along with her brother Warren (who himself gave away much of his fortune), what is described as “the first MOOC (massive open on-line course) in philanthropy.” Its intent, in part, was to teach young people about philanthropy. It looks like it was so popular it will be given again. Doris spares no sacred cows and tells it like it is. Watching the Buffetts and listening to them on the subject of philanthropy is certainly more interesting and more fun for me than reading foundation annual reports written by public relations consultants.


Nina Simon’s recent Museum 2.0 blog post about how to measure the impact of the arts on “social bridging” (i.e., bringing people closer across diverse cultures and communities) struck a powerful chord with me. Nina highlights the challenge of measuring social bridging, the desire to transition from “feel good anecdote” to concrete evidence of social impact, and the possibility of using different approaches from the social psychology sector. I am particularly interested in a similar, related issue: the challenge of engaging diverse audiences in the measurement tool itself, regardless of the approach. In other words, why do some people opt to cooperate with surveys while others don’t?

For nearly a decade, we have been developing and revising methods for measuring the intrinsic impacts of art experiences, including social bridging and bonding. There are inherent biases in nearly all approaches to data collection (e.g., loyalty bias that predicts subscribers and members will respond at a much higher rate; age bias associated with online methods), but there are always opportunities to learn and grow in our methods and improve reliability of results. How do we more effectively engage diverse communities in research and evaluation efforts?

As a researcher looking to gather valuable audience feedback from diverse communities, I am coming face-to-face with the need to develop my own skill set around cultural competency. I am working on building cultural context prior to data collection in order to inspire greater audience participation in the research. Currently we are experimenting with a number of different tactics to build cultural context in our work, including appointing a community representative as a research partner and conducting interviews and focus groups as part of the research plan design. With these efforts, we hope to mitigate certain data collection challenges, such as varying levels of literacy and comprehension and participants’ aversion to recording personal information on paper. In general, we must listen harder and learn to communicate differently, in a vocabulary and tone that is less about gathering information, but more about learning and growing.

Drawing from the principles of action research, I find it helpful to consider a three-step process for increasing cultural competence:

  • internal review and revision of researchers’ existing cultural assumptions;
  • recruitment of and buy-in from community leaders; and
  • evaluation and continued commitment to questioning assumptions in order to change course as needed.

Additionally, Harvard University’s Program for Cultural Competence in Research published anannotated bibliography of cultural competency research in the healthcare sector (updated in 2010) that provides useful resources for further investigation into this topic. I am looking forward to testing my own assumptions over the next few years.

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